Beliefnet News

by Michelle Rindels
The Vatican is appealing to U.S. officials to commute the
death sentence of a Georgia man convicted of killing a police officer in
Saying that a number of key witnesses have recanted their
testimonies, the Vatican embassy in Washington sent a letter to Georgia
Gov. Sonny Perdue, requesting clemency for Troy Anthony Davis, 38.
“In the name of Pope Benedict XVI, I am respectfully asking you to
commute Troy’s sentence to life in prison without parole,” wrote Vatican
diplomat Monsignor Martin Krebs.
Davis was sentenced to death for the murder of Mark MacPhail, a
Savannah police officer.
His execution was originally scheduled for Tuesday (July 17), but is
on hold while the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles weighs the case.
The board must rule by Oct. 14.
The Vatican is joined by civil rights leader and U.S. Rep. John
Lewis, D-Ga., in petitioning for clemency for Davis.
“As a man of faith, I am sure I know what God wants you to do. Do
justice. Commute the sentence of Troy Anthony Davis,” Lewis said at a
clemency hearing last week.
While he was present at the scene of the murder, Davis says that he
wasn’t responsible for the murder. Seven witnesses have recanted or
contradicted testimony implicating him, according to Davis’ lawyers.
The Board of Pardons and Paroles has received thousands of letters
on Davis’ behalf. A representative said they will treat the Vatican’s
request like the others.
“The board has to base its decision on facts,” spokesman Scheree
Lipscomb told The Associated Press.
Copyright 2007 Religion News Service

by Omar Sacribey
Rizwan Kadir liked working in finance, but when he read a
verse in the Quran that said engaging in usury was the same as “waging
war” against God and Islam’s prophet Muhammad, fear struck him.
“When you come across an aya (verse) like this, it makes you start
wondering what you’re doing with your life,” said Kadir, an investment
banker in Chicago.
He started reading about Islamic views on interest and talking to
workers at Islamic banks that offered interest-free finance as a
foundation of their business.
Kadir eventually concluded that the prohibition on interest didn’t
jibe with Islamic logic and that the “interest free” arrangements touted
by Islamic banks were just usury under another name.
“What they’re doing is calling the same thing with a bunch of
different names,” said Kadir, who has a mortgage, auto and student loan
The prohibition on charging and paying interest is a cornerstone —
along with withholding investments from trades like alcohol and
pornography — of the rapidly emerging industry known as “Islamic
There are some 270 Islamic banks with more than $265 billion in
assets, according to sponsors of the International Islamic Finance
Forum, a semi-annual industry conference that meets in Switzerland this
fall. Most of the banks are found in wealthy Muslim nations like Saudi
Arabia, Bahrain, Dubai and Malaysia. In addition, many Western banks,
such as industry giants Citibank and HSBC, have established Islamic
finance departments.
But a growing chorus of critics say the idea that Islamic law
forbids all forms of interest is incorrect. Moreover, they argue, some
of the bankers, lawyers and clerics who draw up and bless “interest
free” transactions are profiting off the pious with arrangements that
look a whole lot like usury.
Islamic scripture condemns riba, an Arabic word meaning “excess,”
which is commonly interpreted as usury. Some Islamic law scholars assert
that all interest is prohibited. Others say only excessive interest is
prohibited, and that interest is an indispensable part of society that a
logical God wouldn’t condemn.
“The notion that the spirit of the Quran is against modern forms of
interest, like on a mortgage or a consumer loan, this to me makes no
sense,” said Timur Kuran, chairman of Islamic studies at Duke
Throughout history, interest was common in the Islamic world, in
places such as the Ottoman Empire, Kuran said. Controversy over the
practice only emerged during the 1940s when Indian Muslims cited the
need for an interest-free banking system as one reason they needed a
homeland separate from Indian Hindus, the scholar said.
Since then, the Islamic finance sector slowly developed, before
taking off in the last 20 years, with Islamic financial institutions
offering a growing number of transaction models, such as profit sharing,
that avoid interest.
One example is a “murabaha” mortgage. Say a Muslim family wants to
buy a home for $100,000. It might go to an Islamic bank, which would buy
the house and sell it to the family for $120,000. The family would then
have a certain amount of time to repay the bank. A similar practice was
common in medieval Europe when interest was prohibited by the Roman
Catholic Church.
Mahmoud El-Gamal, chair of the Islamic economics department at Rice
University, argues that such transactions amount to a “bait and switch.”
“The whole is, I want to lend but I don’t want to call interest,
`interest,”‘ said El-Gamal. Such transactions cost more than other
financial arrangements and hurt Muslim consumers, according to El-Gamal.
“They’re trapped because they’re told they’ll fry in hell if they go
to regular banks,” he said.
El-Gamal said obedience to the form of the contract often supersedes
the spirit of Islamic economic values, such as serving the poor.
Industry advocates counter that even if some financial transactions
serve the same purpose as interest that doesn’t mean they are forbidden
by Islam.
“It’s possible, as it is in many ethical and legal systems, for two
different actions to have the same outcome but because of the way
they’re done — for one to be wrong or illegal in that ethical or legal
system, and for the other to be permissible or lawful,” said Taha
Abdulbasser, an Islamic law scholar with the Islamic Finance Project at
Harvard Law School.
Hussan Qutub, a spokesman for Guidance Financial Group, an Islamic
bank based in Reston, Va., that offers interest-free mortgages, said
Islam draws a difference between monetary lending agreements and
agreements based on commodities.
“We’re trying to reach the same end result that other financial
organizations are trying to reach, which is putting people in homes,”
Qutub said. “But how are you going to get me there, that’s where we
Skeptics like Kadir remain unconvinced. “For me, Islamic finance is
nothing more than affinity marketing, you market your services to
someone who you have an affinity with,” he said.

Copyright 2007 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of
this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written

United Press International
Perugia, Italy – Jul 23, 2007 – Authorities in the Italian city of Perugia raided a local mosque during the weekend, arresting its imam and seizing a number of chemicals.
The Italian news agency ANSA reported Monday Mostapha El Korchi was arrested during the weekend raid and the chemicals found inside his mosque were set to be tested to determine if they could be the ingredients for a bomb.
Also arrested during Saturday’s raid were two Moroccan nationals who were working as assistants.
Police said several combat training films were also seized.
Other evidence allegedly showed El Korchi had several bomb-making manuals from the Internet.
Saturday’s raid of the Perugia mosque immediately prompted calls from Italian government officials for increased immigration regulations.
ANSA said several right-wing Italian politicians also suggested the immediate closure of all Italian mosques as a temporary precautionary measure.
Copyright 2007 by United Press International

Associated Press
Beijing – July 23, 2007 – China’s intelligence services are gearing up for next year’s Beijing Olympics, gathering information on foreigners who might mount protests and spoil the nation’s moment in the spotlight.
Government spy agencies and think tanks are compiling lists of potentially troublesome foreign organizations, looking beyond the human rights groups long critical of Beijing, security experts and a consultant familiar with the effort said.
They include evangelical Christians eager to end China’s religious restrictions, activists wanting Beijing to use its oil-buying leverage with Sudan to end the strife in Darfur and environmental campaigners angry about global warming.
The effort is among the broadest intelligence-collection drives Beijing has taken against foreign activist groups, often known as non-governmental organizations, or NGOs. It aims to head off protests and other political acts during an Olympics the communist leadership hopes will boost its popularity at home and China’s image abroad.
“Demonstrations of all kinds are a concern, including anti-American demonstrations,” said the consultant, who works for Beijing’s Olympic organizers and asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
The government, he said, is “trying to find out what kinds of NGOs will come. … What are their plans?”
While foreign governments often monitor potentially disruptive groups ahead of big events, Beijing this time is ranging farther afield, targeting groups whose activities would be considered legal in most countries.
As such, the move carries risks for Beijing. Evidence that the communist government is withholding visas or engaged in heavy-handed policing to suppress protests would likely draw negative press and could unnerve the International Olympic Committee and corporate sponsors.
Scott Kronick, the president of Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide’s China operations, said he raised concerns about the way protests might be handled when an official with the Beijing Olympic organizing committee asked him about the possibility of activists disrupting the torch relay.
“I said, ‘People will understand that. That’s the way different groups act. What you need to worry about is what your response is going to be and how you will act,'” said Kronick, whose clients include Adidas, an Olympic sponsor.
The Ministry of Public Security, the national police agency which runs some domestic spying networks, declined to comment as did the Beijing Olympic organizing committee. Phone numbers for the main spying agency, the Ministry of State Security, are not published, and the Cabinet’s main information office would not provide them.
Concerns about foreign protesters are a reminder of how the Beijing games differ from most previous Olympics. Aside from the hefty $40 billion price tag and the government’s outsized political ambitions, security poses a different challenge, complicated by Chinese leaders’ repressive policies at home and growing profile abroad.
“They are worried about a larger number of things and they are worried about keeping the lid on,” said Arnold Howitt, who runs crisis-management training programs for Beijing officials at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
Like all Olympic hosts post-Sept. 11, China’s security services are concerned about terrorism. Attacks by militant Islamic groups, some of them homegrown, top the list of scenarios the police and the military are preparing for, Chinese and foreign security experts said.
Yet China also faces a plethora of disaffected domestic groups – Tibetans eager to cast off Chinese rule, farmers upset at land confiscations and Falun Gong, a once-popular spiritual movement the government suppressed as a cult. A research institute involved in crisis-planning for the Olympics has looked into possible unrest by unemployed workers, analysts at the think tank said.
China has long been wary of NGOs, fearing they might be acting as agents for foreign governments or encouraging defiance of the Communist Party.
Those worries grew in recent months as a multiplying number of foreign groups mounted public campaigns to tie causes as varied as promoting labor rights and protecting sharks to the Beijing games.
The Darfur campaigners, who threatened to re-brand the games the “Genocide Olympics” if China does not pressure Sudan to stop the conflict, particularly alarmed Beijing.
“As far as the Chinese side is concerned, NGOs are a destabilizing factor,” said the security consultant.
Though Chinese leaders believe a boycott is unlikely, successful protests by foreigners would not only tarnish the games but could also embolden domestic critics, Chinese foreign policy experts and activists said.
After four Americans unfurled a banner calling for Tibetan independence on the Chinese-controlled side of Mount Everest in April, China tightened access to Tibet for foreigners, especially Americans, Western diplomats in Beijing said.
In trying to neutralize foreign NGOs, Beijing is in part building on methods used to quash Falun Gong. After declaring the spiritual movement illegal in 1999, Beijing infiltrated the group and identified many among its millions of followers, both within China and overseas.
As with Falun Gong, the security consultant said government agencies were compiling lists of foreign NGOs and their members. He declined to specify whether electronic surveillance or infiltration, a textbook tactic for China’s police and spying agencies, were being used.
Part of the research into NGOs, including into Darfur groups, was being conducted by the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, a think tank affiliated with the Ministry of State Security that also has an Olympic security task force, the two analysts said.
Officials in China’s overseas diplomatic missions are also being tasked to gather information on groups, the consultant said.
When The Associated Press reported in May on plans by U.S. and other Christian groups to proselytize at the Olympics, the press officer at China’s U.N. mission contacted the AP seeking more information.
“Africa, global warming, Darfur,” said the security consultant, “without the Olympic Games, Beijing would not be paying attention to these things.”
Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.